River drop countdown

(First published in the May 9, 2019 issue of City Pages)

The Wisconsin River drawdown between Wausau and Brokaw had a month delay. Because of turtles.


Preparations have begun for the Wisconsin River drawdown and repair of the hydro-electric dam in Wausau. Excessive rain this spring delayed turtles egg-laying, so the drawdown was delayed to give the river animals more time.

Folks in the Wausau area might be wondering when the Wisconsin River is going to start drawing down above the dam near downtown. Originally planned to start April 1, the drawdown has been delayed and should start any day.

The reason for the delay: turtles.

That’s what Kelly Zagrzebski of Wisconsin Public Service told the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee Monday. The drawdown of the river will allow WPS to perform work on the hydroelectric dam south of Stewart Avenue. It was supposed to start April 1, then was delayed to April 15, then May 1, then May 6 and finally is expected to start soon.

WPS delayed the drawdown because the excessive rain delayed turtles ending their hibernation and laying their eggs, Zagrzebski says. Starting the drawdown could harm that process.

The drawdown will see the Wisconsin River drop 14 feet when completed, and residents should see water levels drop about a foot per day, Zagrzebski says. Dropping the water levels will allow WPS to replace three of the original seven gates on the dam, along with several other repairs on the dam built in 1921. The water was last lowered in 1998, Zagrzebski says.

Residents worried about the disease blastomycosis, a lung infection caused by a fungus common in river muck, can rest easy, says Marathon County Health Department representative Sara Brown. The lower water level over the summer is likely to reduce the chance of blasto fungus, which can grow with the wetting and drying that occurs along a river helps blasto grow. Brown says the drawdown actually stops that process.

Any stranded aquatic species in the river are being monitored by a third party environmental group, and will be relocated, Zagrzebski says. Wausau Parks Director Jamie Polley says the department will be working with the DNR to perform some clean up of the river and make repairs to the boat landings.

Speaking of drawdowns, Wausau’s isn’t the only one.

The Eau Claire River also will be lowered around the Schofield Dam on Grand Avenue starting June 10. The city of Schofield will lower the water six inches per day, to no more than 5.5 feet total, to perform work on public utilities. The city is working with the Wisconsin DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Marathon County, and any stranded fish or other aquatic life will be moved to another part of the river, says Public Works Director Mark Thuot.

City staff expect the work to be complete and the water levels back to normal no later than Oct. 1.